A Farewell to the Flower Girl

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On my way back from Jammu & Kashmir I had to do a short stop in Mumbai. There was something I needed to take care of before returning back to Finland: saying farewell to Laxmi, the flower girl I met by the Gateway some months ago.

Up in the mountains of Leh, neither my local nor my Finnish SIM card was working. While this was unexpected, it was a welcome forced removal from the grid. A liberation from the digital chains of modern society. However, this also hindered me from calling Laxmi and setting up a meeting. So I asked Sajjad, via Whatsapp while on the hotel’s wifi, to call her and arrange a meet outside Café Leopold at 17:30. For the trouble I would buy him a cold hazelnut twist coffee once I got back.

The heat in Mumbai was a stark contrast to the cool mountainscapes of Ladakh. And despite it being Sunday, it was as crowded as ever.

We met outside Leopold, at 17:30, among merchants and tourists. I hadn’t seen her since the time I was in Mumbai, with Hugo, in November. We sat down at a corner table. The café was packed, as always. As we were doing some catching up, we were joined by Puja, a six year old girl. She was the daughter of one of Laxmi’s friends, who was also in the neighbourhood. Cute kid – shy and a bit awkward, I don’t think she was used to these kinds of places.

Ok, I thought. I’ll buy her a meal as well. Looked like she could use it. In fact, neither of them had eaten anything that day. Laxmi had the usual: cheese and chicken sandwich. Same for the kid, but untoasted bread. And a bottle of coke.

I asked her if she still had the photos I gave her. She did, and apparently she treasures them: in order to not lose them, she wears them on her back, inside her dress. She showed them to Nanda, who promptly offered her house in exchange for them. I said to Laxmi she had to be joking. Nope, she was serious.

Although Laxmi seemed to be doing alright, she wasn’t: just a week ago she had been to the hospital for heat stroke, malnourishment and dehydration. She’s not allowed near the Gateway anymore; too many flower girls, the authorities say.

She still sleeps out on the streets. She called me, one evening about two months ago, and told me this. There’s a small flat that she could rent, but has no support network that could help her out. Monsoon will be starting in a month or two, and if you don’t have a roof over your head by then you’re in for worse times.

This was also one reason I wanted to meet her. Tucked away in my backpack I had an envelope with a small sum of cash. It should help her get by, for a few months. A small farewell from me, and a thanks for the whole Diwali thing. I handed her the envelope.

Meanwhile, the shy girl was cautiously starting to come out of her shell, glancing up at me every now and then. She had a toy: the detached front panel of an old phone – just the plastic framework – and a piece of worn out cardboard with some advertisements. If you put them on top of each other you could, with enough imagination, get something that looked like a phone with a large, colorful display.

What about her, I asked Laxmi while looking at Puja, what does her future look like?

They’ll try to get her in a private school. They don’t teach English in public schools – something that is seen as a deal-breaker when it comes to future opportunities. But it’s expensive, and for them to be able to pay for it all they need to save up some money. Until then she’ll follow her mother around, selling flowers and begging.

We started playing with the drinking straws. For some reason, tying knots on them was very entertaining. I would tie a knot or two, hand it over to Puja. She would effortlessly open them and shine a triumphant smile. I picked out a longer straw and tied four knots on it. She thought it was too pretty, and handed it back to me.

Once we were done with our meals it was time for me to be on my way.

Outside, I told her it was nice that we met, on that equally hot day in October. It was nice of her to stay in touch and invite me to the Diwali festivities in Hadapsar. She wished me all the best and said I would be in her prayers.

As the cab zoomed away I waved to Laxmi, and showed Puja the “call me” sign. She smiled and showed up her neat phone.

Diwali

The Heebie Jeebies

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People sometimes ask me if I freaked out at any point when preparing for the trip, if I started stressing about what I was getting myself into. And I would say no, since what I was feeling was something closer to positive excitement, a pleasant unknown – a sense of adventure!

But this still was, subjectively speaking, quite an undertaking and bound to rattle somewhere. And, admittedly, I did get the fight-or-flight feeling, once: 15 minutes before boarding the flight from Helsinki. I was sitting in the terminal, feeling quite calm and looking out toward the runways – at nothing in particular. Then it hit me, like a wave from an unseen horizon – as these things usually do.

My skin started tingling and my mind was racing, frantically trying to find a solution to a problem that didn’t exist. What am I doing, moving to another country? More or less by myself, to almost the other side of the world, for six months? Did I really want to do this? What if I hate it, what if I can’t cope? What if I get seriously ill?

Alright alright alright, this was to be expected, I thought. Tried to keep a cool head, took a few deep breaths and started walking through that inner maze, telling the lizard brain that the more evolved parts got this covered; everything was going to be fine. Just let go.

Just let go.

A few minutes later the wave had passed and my head was back on my shoulders. Not as firmly as before, but good enough.

It was almost time to board the flight. Decided to call my parents, to give a final farewell from Finnish soil. Also told my mom – who, not surprisingly, is usually the more fretting one of the two – not to worry about this whole India thing; I was going to be just fine.

I’m still not sure if it was her or myself that I was trying to convince.

Encore

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For a moment there I thought the East India Express would be my last trip here in India. And I would have been fine with that; with that nine day train journey and the recent trip to Hong Kong I’ve certainly been keeping my travel bug content.

But, lo and behold, it’s not over yet! I had a look at the calendar, counted the weekends, reviewed my notes and came to the conclusion that there’s still room for a little something. So today I got tickets up to Jammu and Kashmir, where I’ll be enjoying mountain scenery, barren landscapes and blends of buddhism and Indian culture in the small town of Leh. Departure is in one week – a four day extended weekend is all I could manage. I have to work too, you know!

Welcome Back

I have to say, the new T2 terminal at Mumbai international looks quite nice. They could, however, use slightly better signage – after getting my tourist visa and backpack, I stood outside trying to find the prepaid taxi station. There were practically no signs that lead me anywhere in particular. Time was about two in the night, and I still had to get to Dadar East – the bus station that busses to Pune leave from – and sit in a bus for three hours before being even close to the apartment.

A guy came up to me and asked me where I was going. He was a, shall we say, freelancing cab driver, willing to drive people for prices slightly lower than the prepaid ones. The normal fare from the airport to Dadar East is somewhere in the vicinity of 300 rupees.

So this guy, probably thinking it was my first time there, looked at me and said he could drive me for thirty-five hundred rupees.

Now, I’m the kind of guy that easily defaults to a look of skepticism. This usually results in me having big wrinkles on my forehead. But this is a good thing: I was told by a sikh in Hong Kong that it means good luck. Especially if there are three distinct lines.

But I digress. With a look of something between a frown and a smile, I asked the guy: wait, did you just say three five zero zero rupees to Dadar East? Really?

He nodded enthusiastically. Yeah!

That’s quite a profit margin these guys are aiming for. A one thousand percent fare hike.

Sensing my not too subtle disbelief, he gave me a special offer: but you, I can drive there for 1500 rupees. I told him that was still a bit more than I was willing to pay. With that kind of money I could get a cab all the way to Pune.

He didn’t have much to say to that, I think he was sensing that this fish wouldn’t bite the hook. So I told him I’d been there a couple of times and knew by now what the standard fares were, bid him farewell and continued my way down to the prepaid taxi station – now that I had figured out where it was.

Entering the elevator, I was joined by a fellow foreigner being chased by another scoundrel. Where do you want to go, I give you good price, the driver said. I advised the foreigner to ignore those and just go with prepaids. He agreed. Another swindle averted.

Besides that, getting the taxi to Dadar East went without problems. Although I did have to deal with the regular helpers, meaning the guys who show you which cab you have the reservation with – in exchange for some money of course. He insisted on foreign currency, but I tried telling him that since I live in the country I had none, he was just going to have to take the 50 rupees or leave it.

Perhaps you can sense my slight frustration. Hong Kong was such a breath of fresh air: no hassles and no-one trying to con me out of anything. Here I’m, immediately after arrival, tagged as game and harassed with several requests for money in one form or the other.

We rolled up to Dadar East. It was silent and deserted. I stepped out of the cab and looked around;  there didn’t seem to be any busses around, at all. Apparently I had been misinformed regarding the nightly departures.

A guy was walking down the street, came up to me and confirmed this; the next bus was leaving at six – in four hours.

Great. So there I was, stuck in downtown Mumbai, in the middle of the night, with no way to get to Pune.

While I stood there, reviewing my options, the man continued: You want a taxi? There I went with that skeptical frown again. How much? Four hundred, one seat, A/C cab.

Four hundred is actually a good deal. Really good. I had to double-check that we’re talking about getting a cab, to Pune, now. Yes.

Sounds good, I said, let’s go.

The guy calls someone, and within a minute a car drives up. It was not a cab, it was a regular car. Squeaky and run down, it looked like it had been used for road races for the last two years. The driver sat low, one hand on the wheel and the other on the gear stick, a real slick jock. Next to him was someone I reckon was a passenger and, color me surprised, the back seat had two more! So the only space remaining was this narrow half-seat in the middle. And the guys sitting at the sides weren’t small ones, either.

I looked at the man who arranged this, asked him if this was it, if this was my ride. Yes.

Well, that explains the cheap fare. Car didn’t seem to have A/C but I let it slide.

Ok, fine, unlicensed cab it is then. I threw the large backpack in the trunk and hopped in. Despite me being the tallest one, the other passengers weren’t terribly interested in changing seats. I squeezed myself into the middle seat. Looked like I had to hunch over a bit for the entire trip unless I fancied hitting my head on the slightly collapsed roof.

It wasn’t convenient but it was the best option I had. So off we went, down the Mumbai overpass. Meanwhile I struck up a conversation with my temporary neighbours. They were both indeed on their way to Pune as well, for some work thing. How long they had been waiting in the cab was unclear, but I still find it wonderfully random to get, on a few minutes notice, an almost fully loaded unlicensed cab, in the middle of the night, to go somewhere 150 km away.

Soon enough we were heading towards Navi-Mumbai, and from there into the mute silhouettes of the Pune highlands. There are practically no streetlights, so all illumination is from other vehicles. This makes it all a bit eerie somehow.

The drive took about two and a half hours. I couldn’t move, at all. By the time I stepped out on Baner Main Road, in Pune, my right thigh was almost cramping. The clock was a little to five, sun was getting up in an hour or so. No people in sight, only packs of street dogs roaming freely.

A while later I arrive at the Vasant Vihar Towers. The gates are closed during the night, with the guards sleeping out in the yard. I clonked on the gate a few times in an attempt to wake them up, but they wouldn’t even stir.

Ah, whatever, I thought and chucked my backpack over the wall, and climbed over. Well this night was fun. Laughed by myself all the way to the elevator.

Good to be back after all – even if only for a while.

28 Days

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The flight from Hong Kong landed a little past midnight. Gone were the neon lights and vertical scenery of that enchanting city. My feet were once again on Indian soil.

Or, almost. I still had to go through immigrations and – since my employment visa had now expired – apply for an on-arrival tourist visa. There wasn’t supposed to be any snags, but considering my dealings with the FRO and the general bureaucracy involved I didn’t take anything for granted.

The area was virtually empty at this late hour: behind rows of empty chairs stood several deserted booths. In front of one of them sat a suit clad man, waiting. I sat down in the vicinity and waited for someone to turn up. Asked the man how long he had been there. About one hour, he said with a slight nod. We both knew that was close to the standard minimum you could expect. His application was filled in and he was just waiting for the final documents. At the same time an official turned up. Nice fellow, asked me if I was there for a visa-on-arrival and handed me the form, with a smile.

Again I had the pleasure to assure the state of India that my grandparents had nothing to do with Pakistanis; a standard question on immigration-related matters in India, but still something that might surprise a first-time visitor. We went through the form and I told the official my story: I’ve been working in India for six months, and now I’m looking forward to a one month vacation with my friends in Pune. Even though I was going to work to Finland during my stay I wasn’t going to risk complicating things at this point.

I handed over some supporting documents and a passport photo, and was a while later escorted to a dusty office in the back. There, among cardboard boxes and old computer equipment, sat a man on a squeaky chair. This is where I was supposed to make the 60 USD payment, for which I got a receipt printed out on a nostalgic dot matrix printer – the color of which, as with all other equipment in that office, had long ago turned from eggshell white to café latte beige.

Everything went surprisingly smooth. I was expecting some interrogation, additional clarifications and three hours of waiting, but was after one hour handed back my passport, along with a fresh visa stamp. Expiry April 18th. The official wished me a good stay and we shook hands before I left to see if my backpack was still somewhere to be found.

Twenty-eight days left.